How I improvised to be childless

I was on a broken train talking to a stranger, I met a few hours ago, sharing the story of my life as if in a therapy. I was a childminder in love with kids, so I had the perfect job. I was married to a man I loved, but life was not perfect. We couldn’t have a baby and the ‘problem’ lay within me, I was infertile. I told the stranger on the train that I felt ‘incomplete’ as a woman and I was almost in tears.

This was only an exercise in improvisation theatre (a.k.a Improv) and I had just come up with this character. At first, I didn’t know much about her. Only when I talked to the person across from me as ‘she’, I discovered more than I expected. The sadness was so intense and the scene felt so real that I could hardly shake it off afterwards.

Improvisation is life.

So say the Improv professionals. We improvise constantly as we go about our daily life. We improvise solutions to last minute problems we encounter, or excuses to get out of uncomfortable situations, or games to keep our super-bored kid busy to avoid tantrums, and so on and so forth. It’s just so natural to us. And perhaps this was why the exercise above had such a strong effect on me – a total beginner to Improv and acting in general.

Improv teacher and performer Neil Curran grew up immersed in the world of theatre as his mother was an actor. Yet improvisation, rather than script-based acting, was more appealing to him: “I was always a very shy and introverted child. You know, I was bullied in school and things like that…The reason I liked improvisation is because it was liberating. Because it was the one time in my life I didn’t have an adult telling me what to do or a director giving you a script…Because I was shy and introverted and bullied I had the cradle of my parents and teachers to lead me in the way of life. Improvisation took that away from me in a good way.”

What makes Improv different from say, a memorised act?

Obviously, in script-based acting, actors need to memorise a script and follow the vision of the director. In Improv, actors are free from both ‘restrictions’, so to say. This is the side of the story that we can easily see. Scientists were interested in the invisible side.

Surgeon, neuroscientist and musician Charles J Limb investigates whether our brain works the same way when we display a behaviour well-known to us and when we improvise. To study this phenomenon, Limb focuses on jazz music -a prime example of improvisation. Jazz musicians are trained to master musical improvisation. Once they hear the underlying musical structure of a piece, they use it as a framework for their improvised and everytime novel solo.

Limb and his colleagues asked 6 professional jazz musicians to play a keyboard with 35 full-sized piano keys alone or with the (recorded) musical accompaniment of a jazz quartet. 1 Prior to experiments, musicians had to memorise (1) a simple melody within a single scale and (2) a complex jazz composition. On the day of the experiments, they had to play these both. On top of that, they had to improvise (3) a simple melody within the same scale as the memorised one and (4) a complex jazz solo. During these performances, musicians were inside a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) apparatus, which scanned their brains to see which regions were active.

fMRIThe non-invasive fMRI technique uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the body. Limb and his colleagues designed a custom keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts to avoid unwanted interactions with the powerful magnets in the fMRI machine. If you wonder how on earth the musicians could perform while in a machine like this, you can watch Charles Limb’s TED talk for videos from his experiments. They were definitely flexible with their environmental needs to compose music.

Across each improvisation task, certain regions at the front of the musicians’ brains were consistently activated while other parts were deactivated. The active regions are linked to internally motivated, self-expression behaviours such as informally talking to others about yourself. The deactivated regions are linked to carefully planned and implemented behaviours, like how you would prepare for an interview.

The authors suggest when brain regions that consciously and constantly monitor our thoughts are switched off, we are free to come up with novel thoughts. In other words, when we let ourselves free of our mind filters, the creative juices start flowing.

This state of unconscious creativity is called the ‘flow’ state in jazz and it is valid for other forms of improvisation.

Curran describes how he perceives the flow state in Improv: “It’s like the short-term memory part of your brain switches off when you are fully present because you don’t remember. A lot of the time if you are really truly present and in the moment, you won’t remember what’s happening.”

Neil ON STAGENeil Curran (left) stars on Neil+1, an improvised theatre show where an audience member is invited up to perform on stage. Find out more here. (Photo credits: Barcelona Improv Festival)

Yet improvisation is not just about thoughts, emotions are also crucial. No creative process can be disengaged from the feelings of its creator. In Improv, actors have to verbally express how they feel about the improvised situation and their relationship with each other on stage. Otherwise, the story does not develop and the scene simply does not move on.

Curran enjoys the freedom of using a wide variety of emotions in Improv: “We have explicit permission when we improvise to have every extreme emotion, every part of the emotional scale, if such a thing exists, at our disposal. And we must be honest with that emotion…We get to say and do things in Improv that we don’t get to say and do in real life.”

How do our emotions influence the way our brain works creatively?

To address this, Limb and his colleagues took their jazz improvisation studies one step further.2 They wanted to see if the brain activity changes when musicians express different emotions in their improvised pieces. So they showed 12 professional jazz pianists photos of an actress with either a positive (happy), a negative (sad) or an ambiguous (neutral) face expression. Using the same fMRI set up in the previous study, they asked musicians to improvise pieces that they thought best represented the emotions expressed in the photos.

Compared to ambiguous and negative emotion tasks, there was broader deactivation in regions of ‘careful planning’ during the positive emotion task. During ambiguous and negative emotions tasks, ‘self-monitoring’ regions were activated, which lacked in the positive emotion task. These results suggested two things: (1) musicians’ emotional intentions influenced the way their brains worked, and (2) when musicians intended to express a positive feeling they went into a deeper flow state.

This study provides experimental evidence for the link between artistic creativity and emotional states. Along with other studies in the field, it is a starting point to investigate the neurological systems behind creativity – a phenomenon that comes in many forms and is essential to our lives.

I am also at the beginning of my journey into understanding artistic improvisation. I am enjoying the freedom and the fun of the whole process. Also, I am constantly seizing opportunities to translate the things I learn in my everyday life.

Curran talks about how Improv contributes to his life off stage: “I am not afraid of challenges. I am aware of the risks, but I am not afraid of challenges. I’ll take on challenges, I’ll jump into things that I don’t have experience in. I am less of a ‘wait, get back here’ kind of person and more of a ‘yeah, let’s try and let’s do it’ person. It teaches you not to be afraid of failure…Improv fully embraces mistakes. And I think, that truly empowers us in being ok with taking chances in life, taking risks.”

Isn’t that a big, useful skill to have?

I look forward to discovering more in this journey.


Special thanks to Neil Curran for his contribution to this post. Find out more about him and his work on

Featured Image “2 Chairs on Stage” Credits: Mike Gifford / Flickr

If you would like to hear more about Improv, here are some great talks:

Dave Morris:  The Way of Improvisation

Susan Messing:  Braving the Unknown

Mick Napier:  A Place of Yes

Pamela Meyer:  Workplace to Playspace

Avish Parahsar:  Why the World Needs Improv

Galen Emanuele: Improv to be a better human being

Scientific References:

1 C.J. Limb and A.R. Braun (2008). Neural Substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an FMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One, 2.      Open Access

2 M.J. McPherson, F.S. Barrett, M. Lopez-Gonzalez, P. Jiradejvong & C.J. Limb (2016). Emotional Intent Modulates The Neural Substrates Of Creativity: An fMRI Study of Emotionally Targeted Improvisation in Jazz Musicians. Nature Scientific Reports, 6.        Open Access



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